By Sunny Bjerk (Communications Manager, Housing Works)
In the last printed issue of Newsweek magazine, which, after 80 years is now transitioning to an-all digital format, columnist David Ansen talks about the effects the AIDS pandemic had on artists throughout the 70s and 80s, and the supplemental silence that permeated these deaths.
“The initial, official cause of death [for Rudolf Nureyev, Russian dancer] was said to be a ‘cardiac complication’ that followed a long illness. But it wasn’t hard to read between the lines: everybody knew he was the latest in a long line of people in the arts who had died of AIDS.”
Ansen goes on to position the ways in which Newsweek is closing a chapter on its physical printing publication is akin to the ways in which the country is also closing a chapter on the silence of AIDS and AIDS-related deaths during the plague-years, moving toward a place where this silence is “history.”
But we should approach Ansen’s article cautiously, if not critically. (Indeed, if I had more time I would challenge Ansen’s absurd analogy of 9/11 with “the specter of AIDS”).
To start, Ansen paints a glorious present world where HIV stigma and shame are the unfortunate liver spots of the past, and that we, as a country, are moving away from such narrow-mindedness. Ansen writes, “Particularly in the first decade of the scourge, many obituaries would ‘tactfully’ omit the cause of death: there was a stigma, a shame, surrounding HIV infection.” But the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS is far from obsolete, and to speak about stigma and shame as though they are unfortunate relics of the country’s past is to completely mischaracterize the state of HIV/AIDS in the country and across the globe.
Stigma continues to drive low HIV-testing rates. Stigma continues to drive a fear of disclosure. Stigma continues to drive physical and emotional violence against people living with HIV/AIDS—particularly against women. And stigma continues to drive the imprudent HIV criminalization laws across the country. Any argument, then, that posits HIV stigma as past or even fading is clearly erroneous.
Secondly, Ansen’s article also seems to posit that it was only white, middle-to-upper class men in the arts that died from AIDS. This sentiment, whether intentional or not, is evident from the article’s very beginning, which features photos of six men who died from AIDS/AIDS-related illnesses, all of which are white: Liberace, Keith Haring, Rudolf Nureyev, Roy Halston Frowick, Rock Hudson, and Freddie Mercury. In addition, the article goes on to mourn others lost, which continues the pattern of only including white men: Anthony Perkins, Michael Bennett, Robert Mapplethrope, and Charles Ludlam. As such, Ansen’s interest in the “cultural fabric that had been ripped apart and couldn’t be replaced” is a fanciful exclusion of male (and gay) artists of color.
While it could certainly be argued that historically, artists of color did not have the same access (privilege) as their white counterparts and were therefore less likely to be known, this argument seems incredibly circumspect for an article written in 2013 reflecting on the AIDS pandemic in its early stages. In other words, we cannot play along with the article’s specious historicization that it was only white artists who died from AIDS.
Finally, it is hard to jump onboard with Ansen’s optimism, however well-intentioned—when domestic HIV/AIDS services and programs are facing funding cuts upwards of $600 million dollars. He writes, “However, it should be noted that this article serves as a nice rupture to the AIDS fatigue that major media outlets have been suffering from.” (For example, TIME magazine— Newsweek’s main competitor—hasn’t published a domestic HIV/AIDS article since November 28, 2012, and even then, appears to be in “honor” of World AIDS Day). Despite this welcomed interlude into AIDS fatigue, however, we must continue to challenge articles or representations that marginalize and minimalize the effects that HIV and AIDS has had on people of color and underserved communities.